Glenn Gould in the recording studio as a young man

The late great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould made two significant and highly-acclaimed recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the first in 1955 when he was just 22, the second a quarter of a century later in 1981 when he was nearing the end of his life. Both recordings stand as benchmarks and both offer fascinating insights into the music and Gould’s approach to it. These recordings have never been out of print – a mark of their status and the respect they command in the canon of Bach recordings. The 1955 recording was Gould’s debut disc for Columbia Records and was something of a risk for the record company since at the time the Goldbergs were regarded as one of the obscurities of the repertoire, while the performer was unknown. The 1955 recording is often described as a young man’s recording, full of the exuberance of youth in its extreme tempi and avoidance of some of the repeats. In fact, the swiftness of the playing is partly due to the constraints of the vinyl format and the need to bring the recording within a certain time-frame. No matter: Gould’s Goldbergs became an instant hit, launching both pianist and the work, which entered the standard repertoire of pianists and remains widely performed and recorded to this day.

Aria from the Goldberg Variations – Glenn Gould, 1955

When Gould re-recorded the Goldbergs in 1981, recording technology had advanced considerably (stereo and Dolby surround sound had been invented and digital recording/editing could be used for mainstream recordings). This gave the artist greater flexibility, with the possibility of multiple takes to create a recording with which he was entirely satisfied. Gould had been unhappy with the tempi in the first recording and felt there was no sense of cohesion or narrative flow between the individual variations. The 1981 recording is undoubtedly that of a mature artist: the tempi are thoughtful, almost autumnal, and there is much greater expression throughout the variations. There is elegance and nobility rather than swooning, nervous energy.

Aria from the Goldberg Variations – Glenn Gould, 1981

Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations demonstrate something profound – that two different approaches to the same notes say a great deal about how one ages and how tastes change over time.

The weather changes. The admirable impetuousness of youth usually yields to a more considered view

– John Humphreys, concert pianist

A recording is a snapshot in time, yet preserved forever, unlike a live performance which is a one-off, never to be repeated. Many artists are dissatisfied with their recordings because they know that they never play the same thing in exactly the same way and no sooner has a recording come out, than they wish they had done things differently. As amply demonstrated by Gould’s Goldbergs, the passage of time allows one to reflect on one’s repertoire and how one plays it. One’s perception of the music changes with time and so it makes perfect sense to re-record from a different, more mature perspective.

Other notable “repeat” recordings include Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Barenboim was a young man when he recorded his first cycle (between 1966 and 1969), and like Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs, there’s an excitement and spontaneity in these readings. He re-recorded the sonatas for Deustche Grammophon in 1981-84 and two decades later Decca released the audio soundtracks of DB’s live performances of the sonatas (performed and filmed in Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden and issued by EMI on DVD). Like Gould’s Goldbergs, these make for fascinating listening, offering one the opportunity to chart the performer’s artistic and interpretative development and maturity, resulting in new or renewed approaches to the music.

That artists choose to re-record works is a mark of how one develops as an artist: one does not and should not stand still artistically. Our responses to our music change with time, experience, growing maturity, and when we return to music we should always find something new within it. For some musicians, capturing the artistic changes that happen across their careers is an important goal and re-recording certain works is a way of marking these changes. In other instances, musicians respond to pressures from a record label: when an artist moves to a new label, they may be encouraged to re-record works  to match the success of a previous label.

The best re-recordings don’t recreate, they reinvent. And while listening to them, we try to discover what motivations and inspirations stand behind them.

A guest post by pianist Clare Hammond


As a child, I used to curl up on the floor in front of the imposing speakers of my grandfather’s sound system and work my way through his extensive collection of LPs. A lover of the core classical repertoire, he had little beyond Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but these composers were amply represented. While listening to Beethoven symphonies, piano sonatas by Mozart and Haydn’s string quartets, I imbibed a sense that these works were made permanent, somehow concrete, by their incarnation on disc. It seemed that these renditions were ‘definitive’, in a way that I didn’t feel when listening to live music. I hoped that one day, I too would be able to record ‘the’ Moonlight sonata and somehow set my interpretation in stone.

Despite this orthodox musical education, my specialisms now veer somewhat to the side of the mainstream repertoire and I find myself releasing a disc of études by composers from across the globe; two Russians (Sergei Lyapunov and Nikolai Kapustin), a Pole (Karol Szymanowski) and a South Korean (Unsuk Chin). These études represent some of the most innovative, invigorating and imaginative writing for piano and have given me the chance to really delve into what the piano is capable of (and, rather less pleasurably, where my limitations lie!)

I started preparing for this disc many months before the recording sessions. This was partly because the repertoire is extremely difficult technically, and also because this was a very personal project in which I had invested a great deal of emotional and creative energy. I have developed a reputation for playing works that lie at the more elaborate and frenetic end of the musical spectrum, so these études are essentially my ‘core’ repertoire, where I felt most at ease and most stimulated creatively.

I practised the pieces on different pianos, in varying acoustics, and performed them to different audiences, in order to explore the sonic options available to me. I listened to recordings of the études by other pianists, to orchestral repertoire by the composers, and read about their work in order to ‘live’ the pieces and make them my own. I had long abandoned the idea of a ‘definitive’ recording or interpretation, but I thought that I had a clear idea of what I, personally, wanted to achieve. At least, I did before I set foot in the studio…

The first few minutes in front of a microphone soon put a stop to any notions of creating my ‘ideal’ recording, although not in as devastating a way as you might expect. When recording, as in performance, you are suddenly faced with a single instrument which you may not have played before. In my case, at Potton Hall in Suffolk, I had a beautiful Steinway Model D which had been expertly regulated and tuned. However, all pianos have their foibles and if yours doesn’t have the bloom in the higher register that you had set your heart upon, or the percussive timbre that you sought in the bass, you have to find an alternative solution.

I had not anticipated how dramatically altered my physical state would be. I was nervous, though in a different way from live concert performance. We had a finite amount of time (5 days) to record two discs of challenging repertoire, these études and works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik. I wasn’t quite sure how far I could push myself, or for how long (8 hours per day before my wrists give up entirely…) as I’d never done anything this demanding before. The awareness of just how much effort both I and the wonderful team at BIS Records had put into assembling the project, and that my performance over the next few days could potentially undermine all of this, added an extra frisson of anxiety.

Fortunately, I was able to collaborate with producer Thore Brinkmann whose calm demeanour and consummate expertise made the whole process far easier and more enjoyable that I could have expected. We spent the first half hour warming up, with me at the piano and Thore at his desk altering the levels of the seven microphones poised some 12 feet off the ground in a semicircle around the piano. When I heard the first ‘playback’, I was astonished at the sound he had captured. It was so different from what I had heard at the piano. There was a clarity and a crystalline quality in some passages which had not been audible at ground level. Thus began my five-day guessing game where I made alterations at the keyboard whose result I could only hear minutes later in playback.

The specific character of one instrument, the resonance of an acoustic, or the choice of one brand of microphone, would seem to place limitations on the ‘ideal’ performance that I had in mind but, of course, in real life the most interesting results often come when you have to be most pragmatic. I started to respond to the situation and to find creative possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered. While I wouldn’t countenance incorporating the heady cry of a randy pheasant into a recording (and there was one point where I thought I would have to chase a number through the undergrowth away from the hall), certain effects were suggested by the depth of the sustaining pedal on the piano and, fancifully enough, by the vibrations of an aeroplane engine that had ruined a previous take.

It takes some time to fully appreciate that a recording is its own medium and most certainly not a convincing simulacrum of a live performance. For a start, there is no audience and the sense of reciprocal communication that you experience onstage is absent. Secondly, certain effects work much better on tape than they do in the hall. Why this should be, I do not know but there were a number of occasions where a take that I thought unusable, because of its vulgarity or my ineptitude, was by far the best in playback. While we tried to keep editing to a minimum, as with almost any recording, ours involved cutting and pasting tracks together to create a performance that never actually existed. Some may complain that ‘authenticity’ is lost but, again, this assumes that the aim of a recording is to recreate an ‘ideal’ performance for posterity. In reality, people listen to recordings very differently from a live performance and demand a greater level of accuracy and precision than a human being is capable of in one take. As a musician, knowing that if the next passage doesn’t go well you can always redo it, without having to jettison the performance up to that point, is enormously liberating. You are able to take risks that you would rarely contemplate in concert and that adds a vitality that is unique to the recording.

Fast forward nine months and I was able to hear the first edit of my Etude CD, around the time that the other disc, Reflections, of the music of Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik was released. This was a sufficiently long time that the pieces sounded ‘fresh’ to me and I was intrigued to hear what my family and friends thought of the recording. I was struck, as I am again now that the disc has been released, by how differently people listen to a piece. The concept of a ‘definitive’ performance is only meaningful if you can find a ‘definitive’ listener and, of course, both are a nonsense. Listeners bring their own experience, preferences and emotions to a recording and respond accordingly. While this might seem frustrating for the musician, it is actually an intriguing process and has certainly opened my ears to elements that I didn’t initially hear when performing in the studio.

If this is my experience as a pianist, how does the composer feel, compelled to translate their ideas into inadequate notation and submit them to the whims of a performer, and that’s before encountering the uncertainties of the recording studio? It’s important to remember that in order to be authentic, any art-form must be to some extent human and imperfect. The loss of control that one experiences, whether performing on stage or recording, can and should become an integral part of the creative experience. Learning to do this is difficult, and I can’t say that I have succeeded, but the process of becoming receptive to uncertainty is an extremely important part of anyone’s musical and artistic development. When I was younger, I felt that I should strive towards an abstract ‘perfection’ in music. The messy reality is far more interesting.

Clare’s new disc, ‘Etude’, has just been released by BIS Records and is available from all major online retailers. 

“unfaltering bravura and conviction”, Gramophone Magazine

“style and substance”, The Observer

“imagination and bravura”, The Sunday Times

Acclaimed as a pianist of “amazing power and panache” (The Telegraph), Clare Hammond is forging a reputation as an advocate of new and unfamiliar repertoire. In 2014, she gave debut performances at 7 festivals across Europe, including the ‘Chopin and his Europe Festival’ in Warsaw, and world premieres of works by 10 composers. Clare has now released two discs with BIS Records; Reflections, of works by Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik, and Etude, with études by Unsuk Chin, Sergei Lyapunov, Nikolai Kapustin and Karol Szymanowski.

More information is available at www.clarehammond.com/etude.html

Debussy updated for the modern age: Unsuk Chin’s Six Piano Etudes – guest post by Daniel Harding

Meet the Artist…….Clare Hammond

The curious tale of the musician, Dr Frankenstein, and apocalyptic Tesco on Christmas Eve…..

A guest post by pianist Emmanuel Vass

Definition of art 


1 [mass noun] the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.


Definition of chemistry 


1 [mass noun] the branch of science concerned with the substances of which matter is composed, the investigation of their properties and reactions, and the use of such reactions to form new substances.

As I sat by the piano in the recording studio waiting for the next red light, I couldn’t help but think about my abrupt transformation from artist to chemist, as defined above. I was sixteen and, having just played a Chopin Nocturne from start to finish, there were one or two small fluffs and errors, which I considered re-recording and editing. Why? The track was for my own personal use and was never going to go beyond the four walls of my Yorkshire bedroom. Until that point, my teachers encouraged me to discount any mistakes in live performance and continue regardless of the odd inaccuracy: bigger picture and the overall artistic communication what I was always told to aim for. We’re only human, after all. Unexpectedly, the option of appearing ‘super human’ and re-recording sections of pieces until they were perfect had a certain appeal, and it was from that moment on that my potential status as an artist-cum-chemist, a Dr Frankenstein, first began.

It is no secret that musicians strive for perfection, a perfection that may involve securing a technical inconsistency, or developing a better form of communication within a piece – we are all a work in progress. Whether you are a beginner or professional, there will always be something further to strive for and now, as a 24-year-old pianist, I discover new possibilities and developments within my playing on a regular basis; I also hear it whilst teaching my pupils. It is wonderful how much can change within as little as five days, especially with regards to a live performance of the same piece, say, twice in one week. After all the blood, sweat and practice tears striving for perfection, a live performance may go fantastically well one day and less so on another. Comfort and enjoyment onstage knowing the piece has gone well a number of times in the past can, for instance, suddenly yield to confusion as to where that random wrong note came from. It is something we all experience to varying degrees, and is part of the exhilarating, impulsive and unmistakably human-world of live performance, which I fell in love with aged seven. To dedicate yourself with total abandon to a live performance, both as a listener and performer, is to accept that occasionally, just sometimes, the unexpected may occur.

Now consider the world that surrounds us and the ensuing paradox: we live in an age of convenient, digital, airbrushed perfection where a vast amount of items presented to us are expertly designed and manipulated. The lines between reality and illusion, and how we perceive and identify them, have been blurred to the point where entire body parts of celebrities can be digitally sewn on and removed, ‘Frankenstein-ed’, as to morph our opinions and perceptions. We have the luxury of driving around in cars that can protect us from ever making a wrong turn; international news can break on social media via eyewitness films long before newspapers or twenty-four hour news can give a detailed description, and the entire country seems to go into apocalyptic meltdown when the instant convenience of supermarket shopping is lost for just twenty four hours on Christmas Day. I rarely buy bread, but come Christmas Eve there I am elbowing past panic-stricken mothers who also appear to have the entire contents of the cheese aisle stuffed into their pushchairs. In many ways I believe the entire world as we know it is just an all too convenient, disposable and HD-streamed click away: I won’t read the book and will just wait for Hollywood to feed me their version, or, I could probably learn a language but online translator machines can do it for me. Who needs to write a letter when you can talk instantly via webcam? Why bother travelling to Paris, you’ve seen all the stock, generic photos on Facebook and Google Streetviews, right?!

I’m here neither to argue that we should do away with these modern conveniences, nor rant about how the world has changed for the worst and we’re most definitely, direly doomed for all eternity. Rather, my fear is that certain audience members may have been conditioned to believe that a live performance that is anything other than note-perfect is not a worthy one, that the lines between the supposed illusion within the world of recording and reality of the concert hall are far too blurred. There is, of course, a difference between the odd wrong note and a distinct, noticeable problem with fluency and continuity; here I accept that in this situation a performance may start to be deemed ‘less successful’. That said, as humans, we are bound to make mistakes and we should never aspire to be machines; nothing should ever anaesthetise us from the raw reality of life. Does this not contradict the whole point of art in the first place? Perhaps some would be more satisfied listening to pre-programmed robots over real musicians?

 As mentioned in my opening paragraph, recording can be a very complex process for musicians. Of course, not every musician heavily edits or relies on sophisticated recording software – indeed, I didn’t have the time or the money to do so for my first album, ‘From Bach to Bond’. Similarly, it would be absurd to comment that a 100% accurate performance is impossible to achieve or less artistically valuable. I hope the discerning audience member of a live performance would value their experience based on the authenticity, emotion and artistic powers of the performer, and not just their ability to mechanically replicate the exact formula. Judging an artist on their capacity to be an onstage chemist is not an equation for success.

For those of you who prefer the anaesthetised comfort of CDs/recordings and hate wrong notes, I tell you what, you can go ahead and look at pictures and videos of Paris on the Internet, and I’ll go and travel to Paris myself. We are all a work in progress.

Emmanuel Vass will be giving a lunchtime concert at St Sepulchre, the musicians’ church in London on Wednesday 10th July. Full details here

Emmanuel Vass

Named as ‘one to watch’ by The Independent newspaper in April 2013, twenty-four year old Emmanuel Vass is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most charismatic pianists on the contemporary scene. 2013 has already seen the launch of his first CD – From Bach to Bond – and his first UK recital tour under the same heading. The tour, which took in seven venues across the North of England and culminated in his London debut at Steinway Hall and St James’s Piccadilly, attracted considerable media interest, including a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune.

Emmanuel Vass was born in Manila, Philippines and grew up in East Yorkshire. Having passed Grade 8 piano with distinction at the age of 15, he subsequently studied with Robert Markham at Yorkshire Young Musicians, the centre for the advanced training for gifted young musicians based at Leeds College of Music. This was followed by four years at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Manny studied with John Gough and was supported by scholarships from the Leverhulme Scholarship Trust and the Sir John Manduell Scholarship Trust. He graduated in 2011.


Glenn Gould recording ‘The Goldberg Variations’ at the Columbia Studios in New York in 1955

“The paradox of recording is that it can preserve forever those disappearing moments of sound but never the spark of humanity that generates them” (Alex Ross)

Occasionally when I’m at a concert, I hear people comment that the performance “wasn’t as good as his/her CD”. These comments seem tinged with disappointment, suggesting that the listeners were expecting a pristine performance in a silent-as-the grave venue.

I love the excitement of live music – and the whole concert-going experience, from the moment I arrive at the venue and join the throng of people in the foyer or bar, the air full of that eager hum of expectancy, and all the little “rituals” of concert-going: buying a programme, having drinks with friends, discussing the music we’re about to hear, slipping into the plush seats. Then the house lights dim and the adventure that is a live performance begins as the performer crosses the stage, bows to the audience, and takes his/her place at that big shiny black beast of a concert grand. Each performance is different, and it is this very uniqueness that makes live music so special.

Afterwards, when the final note of the last encore has faded and the house lights come up, we make our way out of the venue, sometimes talking excitedly about how wonderful the music was, or quietly digesting what we have just heard. As I wend my way home on the train, I try to retain a memory of the concert, not just of the music, but also the emotions and thoughts I experienced during the performance. If I am writing a review, I inevitably make some notes, just to jog the memory of key points. If I’ve been at a concert with friends, we might email one another the day after to discuss the aspects we really enjoyed (one particular concert-companion is very good at this, and her comments regularly find their way into my reviews and articles). All these things to contribute to the special memory of a live concert.

These days at concerts it is almost de rigeur to find CDs by the featured artist for sale at the performance. For many people, these recordings are, of course, a wonderful way of keeping the memory of the concert alive, purchasing a “souvenir” to take home, or simply buying another recording to add to a cherished collection. More often than not, the soloist is available to talk to/sign CDs afterwards, though I have sometimes had the distinct impression that the soloist would rather be quietly unwinding in the green room, away from people, or heading home for a shower and a good night’s sleep after a particularly effortful or intense performance.

At the turn of the twentieth century, at a time when recordings were relatively scarce, the activity of concert going was confined to a relatively small minority of cultured people (the Proms were conceived to bring classical music to a wider audience and to make music more accessible) and the symphonies of Beethoven, for example, could be heard only in a select few concert halls. And because of the scarcity of recordings, performers enjoyed much more freedom, in the way they rehearsed, presented and performed the music. For example, encores were often given between the movements of a symphony: audiences demanded encores, and received them, and there was nearly always applause between movements (a cardinal sin of concert etiquette these days!). With few or no recordings to bolster their career, performers made their living from, well, performing. Nowadays, the reverse is true, and performing for many performers has become an almost supplementary activity as a way of promoting CD sales, and the general received wisdom in the industry is that successful careers are made through recordings.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, recording technology has grown ever more sophisticated, allowing artists and orchestras to create performances which are quite alien to the performance in the concert hall. Alongside this, a certain “globalisation” of sound has taking place, almost as if all the rough edges and tics and distinctive national traits of earlier performances have been smoothed out, and even so-called “live” performances are subject to a degree of touching up. (‘Hattogate’ offered us some interesting insights into the craft, and craftiness, of the editor.) Incidentally, a performing artist active today, Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov, insists that all his recordings (and he has made relatively few during his long career) are genuinely live – one concert, one take ensuring that no two recordings are ever the same and retaining, as far as possible, the spontaneity of his live performances.

With the rise of high-quality recordings, and the ease with which they could be obtained, performers, ensembles and orchestras were forced to abandon the rather laissez-faire attitude to rehearsing and performing that had existed in an earlier age. Now they could compare performances of the same works by other performers around the world, and certain recordings by certain orchestras/conductors/soloists have become regarded as the benchmark against which other recordings are measured. This standardisation of sound meant that audiences demanded the same high-quality sound in live performances, and performers have been forced to adopt higher standards of technical facility, accuracy, consistency of presentation and an expressive focus that were unknown in the first half of the twentieth century.

This, of course, is no bad thing, and the quality of music one can hear on any given night in any concert hall around the world these days is testament to the high standards performers now set themselves, and similar high standards demanded by audiences and consumers of quality recordings. But it has also led, in my opinion, to a desire by certain audience members to hear an exact recreation of a recording in a live performance – something which is, of course, impossible, for no two live performances are ever the same. It is that spur-of-the moment spontaneity and element of risk that makes live music so exciting.

I have been to many concerts where a world-renowned pianist has fluffed a run or smeared a chord. I have witnessed memory lapses (perhaps the most painful thing to befall a pianist in a live concert), and cover ups for memory lapses. However, I am not the sort of ambulance-chasing concert-goer (and believe me, they exist!) who comes out of the venue glorying in the fact that I have spotted an error. As an occasional performer myself, I know how much these errors can hurt, and how much work one puts in after a performance to exorcise a memory lapse, or mistake. I have rarely felt that an error has “spoilt” a concert: usually the concert experience as a whole was so good, so emotionally engaging, so profound, that any small errors or slips were virtually invisible. Errors remind us that performers are also human, that they – and the music – live and breathe, that passion, involvement, communication, wit and humour rule over absolute perfection. I would far rather hear a performance that had all these very special elements, and the odd error, than a middle-of-the road, perfectly accurate, “safe” or sterile performance. And to those people who demand that kind of smoothed out perfection, I suggest you stay at home and listen to a recording. But beware, you’ll never recreate that excitement, the “aliveness” of the concert hall.

With the advent and increasing popularity of music streaming services such as Spotify, it is now possible to return to earlier recordings to recapture the sounds from another age, and to hear composers performing their own works (Spotify contains some wonderful archive recordings of Rachmaninoff and Ravel playing their own piano music – an incredibly useful resource). Music sharing platforms like SoundCloud offer a twenty-first century version of those early recordings as people post work-in-progress or tracks that were recorded away from the rigours and artificiality of the recording studio (some of my own tracks, recorded at home, have audible birdsong in the background). SoundCloud is also an easy-to-use way of promoting tracks from a new album, giving listeners a “taster” and offering inexpensive new marketing possibilities for performing artists of all genres.

The effect of recording on performers is the subject for a separate blog post.

Further reading

The Record Effect – Alex Ross

Performing Music in the Age of Recording – Robert Philip